Two Via Medias, often confused, seek distinctions

June 17, 2004

In recent weeks, confusion has arisen among Episcopalians concerning the relationship between Via Media USA (VMUSA) [www.viamediausa.org] and Every Voice Network's (EVN)[www.everyvoice.net] "via media" evangelism curriculum.

"There is no connection between the two organizations other than we are both using a good old 'classical Anglican' phrase to describe our work," said the Rev. Rosa Lee Harden, executive director of Every Voice Network. "For what it's worth, we did name our curriculum 'via media' several months before we heard of the work of the Via Media USA groups. It is simply a coincidence we are using the same name. Of course, it is not really a coincidence, in that I believe both organizations have chosen to use that particular name in order to call out that Anglican Christians do have a history of finding a middle way to stay in conversation ... even when we disagree."

Harden, who is also executive producer of "via media," describes it as "a model of radical hospitality with an eight-week program inviting people to come together for a meal, to watch a video and have a discussion about a variety of topics of interest to Anglican Christians." EVN's web site describes "via media" as "a tool that presents the basic tenets of Christianity from an inclusive, Anglican approach to scripture, tradition, and reason that leads the participants to a broader view of the faith journey and the role that the Church can play in society." EVN is funded by donations from individuals, parishes and dioceses and grants from foundations. The 'via media' evangelism curriculum is funded by those sources in addition to sales of the curriculum and training.

The staff of Every Voice Network includes Harden, her husband Kevin Jones, and the Rev. John Kirkley, who joined EVN as project director in March 2002. Harden was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2000 and has served as vicar of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in San Francisco for two years. Kevin Jones twice won the Religion News Writers award as the best U.S. religion writer at a daily paper with less than 500,000 circulation, in Jackson, Mississippi. Both Harden and Jones came to the Episcopal Church from a Southern Baptist background. Together they have bought and sold seven different successful publishing and communications businesses.

A 'comprehension for the sake of truth'

Via Media USA describes itself as an alliance of associations of laity committed to promoting and protecting the faith, unity, and vitality of the Episcopal Church as the American expression of Anglican tradition. "The Via Media USA groups sprang up in particular dioceses up to and after the founding of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (NACDP)," said Christopher Wilkins, facilitator of the Via Media USA Steering Committee. "It was only after each group got underway at home that the groups began to link up with each other and realize that each was not isolated in its struggle to preserve and protect this vibrant Christian community. From these grassroots beginnings, the national alliance, Via Media USA, was formed."

Via Media groups currently exist in the dioceses of Albany (2 groups), South Carolina, Central Florida, San Diego, Fort Worth, Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, Southwest Florida, Springfield (Illinois), and Rio Grande.

"We are trying to help Episcopalians and Anglicans remember that they can speak their truths and tell their stories for themselves with integrity and charity--and without fear," said Wilkins. "We also welcome people in even if they disagree with some or even all of us who are already at the table. More importantly, we don't make disagreements the focus of our attention."

At a meeting in March 2004, Via Media USA adopted as part of their statement: "Via Media, the middle way, is not a compromise for the sake of peace, but a comprehension for the sake of truth." "There's a great deal in the works in terms of living into what it means to be a 'comprehension for the sake of truth' and to support the Episcopal Church as the American expression of Anglican tradition," said Wilkins. "Whatever it takes to do this, we'll do--and wherever it takes us, we'll be there, with God's help."

Distinctions, but not distance

Wilkins sent a memo to Every Voice Network on May 20 to clarify the relationship between their organization and Every Voice Network's "via media" curriculum. "We did so because of a misunderstanding in some quarters that the 'via media' evangelism program was a Via Media USA program," said Wilkins. "Uncertainty about the relationship, we found, was being exploited by people who support neither VMUSA nor EVN. Via Media USA is not affiliated with Every Voice Network or its 'via media' evangelism program. It is important to each of our missions to distinguish the two. Some people, including myself, are drawn to both and see them as integrally connected. Others are drawn to one but not the other, and are not so sure about the connection," said Wilkins.

However, he knows of no one who is drawn either to Via Media USA or to EVN's 'via media' curriculum who is repelled by the other. "Some might have been surprised, though, if they joined a Via Media group and suddenly were asked about the 'via media' evangelism program as if they were its sponsors or creators, although they may never have heard of it."

"'Via Media' was a phrase in common usage referring to a cherished value of the church," added Joan Gundersen, vice president of policy and planning for Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. "It is not surprising more than one group would want to connect with those values. We didn't think that a curriculum was going to be confused with an organization. "

Dottie Pagliaro of Episcopal Forum of South Carolina (EFSC) said she sees no need to distance EFSC in spirit from Every Voice Network. "Most of the members of the Episcopal Forum are kindred spirits. We consider our mission to be promoting reconciliation, educating church members in the Anglican ethos, and providing mutual support among Episcopalians in this diocese who reject the NACDP."

Eight members of the EFSC board met in April with Bishop Edward Salmon. Pagliaro said Salmon had the impression that Via Media USA was being funded and supported by liberal sources similar to Every Voice Network and Integrity. Barbara Mann, treasurer of Via Media USA, assured him that Via Media USA is a totally independent organization.

Responding to an e-mail request for comment, Salmon said: "If they (Via Media USA and EVN) represent the middle, the football is now ten yards from the side of the field for a new middle."

"Some of the groups which formed the Via Media USA alliance did receive modest amounts of private funding from individuals who did not attend the Atlanta meeting [at which Via Media USA was formed] but support our efforts," said Wilkins. He added that as far as he knew none of the groups received a penny from the national church or other Episcopal organizations.

Similarities problematic

Jones said Every Voice Network posted links to the web sites of Via Media USA groups before they started referring to themselves as "Via Media." EVN has also covered some of their activities in its newsletter. "We are supportive of those groups," said Jones. "However, we were already deep into development, with printed materials, a web site under construction, and online ads running on the EVN site using the 'via media' name for our product before they began calling themselves Via Media groups."

"The similarities in name between the Via Media USA organization and EVN's 'via media' curriculum is the most problematic in a diocese like ours," said the Rev. Christopher A. Smith of St. Ann's Episcopal Church, a member of Albany Via Media. "These names are confused in this diocese because we are at such heightened tension [over a vote to join the NACDP June 12]. Those in favor of the NACDP have tended to assume Via Media USA is the same thing as Every Voice Network's 'via media' curriculum. The idea of calling our organization Via Media in Albany came from (the Rev.) John Sorensen last fall before anyone knew that Every Voice Network's 'via media' curriculum existed. In fact, it hadn't even been taped yet."

Smith is currently doing EVN's 'via media' course with a small group of longtime parishioners. During 1998 and 1999 he gave the Alpha evangelism course seven or eight times. Smith thinks that Alpha in today's climate would require too much processing and adaptation and is pleased that there is an American alternative. Representatives of close to 200 churches have signed up for training this summer using the 'via media' evangelism curriculum.

Both Every Voice Network and Via Media USA plan to add a statement to their respective web sites explaining the difference between Via Media USA, the organization and 'via media,' the curriculum.

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